Ray Ellerbrook dies at 65; former Recreation Department and Look Park director in Northampton, star athlete at UMass
NORTHAMPTON — Ray Ellerbrook, a star University of Massachusetts basketball and baseball player who was long synonymous with two beloved city institutions — the Recreation Department and Look Memorial Park — has died.
Ellerbrook, 65, died at his Pioneer Knolls home in Florence late Wednesday night with his wife, Wendy, their two sons and other relatives and friends gathered around.
Ellerbrook served as director of the Northampton Recreation Department for 27 years before he moved on in 2002 to manage Look Park for a decade. He retired from that post at the end of last year, citing his age, and saying he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren.
Recreation Director Ann-Marie Moggio was near tears Thursday — as were others in her office — as she described her relationship with Ellerbrook who hired her as a camp counselor for the department when she was 16 years old in 1985.
She said Ellerbrook had been a strong mentor to her and many others over the years.
“Ray was who you’d go to. He was such a force in our profession — he knew everything. He was so important to so many people,” said Moggio.
Developer and businessman Patrick M. Goggins, who has long been active in community affairs, met Ellerbrook when the two were students together at UMass.
When Goggins left the job of directing the Recreation Department to pursue a business career in 1976, he was succeeded by Ellerbrook. It was Ellerbrook who made the department more professional by transforming it from offering free programs financed by taxpayer dollars into a fee-based organization, according to Goggins. That allowed it to offer more programs that required participants to pay a fee — but also meant consumers had much greater expectations.
“It was a big transition,” said Goggins. “You’ve got to be a pretty good leader and a pretty strong personality to carry it off, and he did it so well.”
Goggins said Ellerbrook developed the department to such a degree that it became highly regarded in the field.
“All of the credit for that goes back to the force of his personality and his ability to make people understand why they have to pay for what they’re getting,” said Goggins.
New Jersey transplant
Ellerbrook, a New Jersey native, came to the area to attend UMass on a basketball scholarship, and stayed after graduation. He met his wife, Wendy, at UMass.
He worked in the recreation field in Springfield for a time, and then worked as the Easthampton recreation director for a year before being named director of Northampton’s recreation services in 1976, where he stayed until 2002.
While at UMass, he set basketball scoring records that stood for several years, and scored 1,224 points in three seasons. He was captain of the 1969-70 team that included sophomore Julius Erving and which went to the National Invitation Tournament for the first time in school history.
Ellerbrook also was a star baseball player at UMass, with a career batting average of .299, and was on the 1969 team which advanced to the College World Series.
Ellerbrook was a two-time All-Yankee Conference selection in both basketball and baseball.
Ellerbrook’s UMass baseball coach, Dick Bergquist, called Ellerbrook “a key player,” noting that in 1969 the team went to the College World Series, a feat helped immensely by Ellerbrook’s defensive playing and excellent hitting.
“Ray was an outstanding athlete. He played both baseball and basketball at UMass back in the days when they allowed that,” said Bergquist. “He played three very good years for us.”
Bergquist followed Ellerbrook’s career over the years, attending, for example, the dedication of the Ray Ellerbrook Athletic Fields in Northampton several years ago.
He was inducted into the UMass Athletic Hall of fame as part of the class of 1998. In 1999, the Daily Hampshire Gazette named him one of the top 25 local athletes over the last 100 years. In 2009 he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame.
Goggins said many people who knew Ellerbrook in his other roles may not have known that he was a basketball and baseball star.
“You never would have known he was a campus hero. He was very unassuming as far as all that was concerned,” said Goggins. “He was a tremendous, tremendous player. You had to drag that out if him, but we knew how to do that.”
While at the helm of the city recreation department, Ellerbrook worked hard to create new athletic fields for youth sports, expand and deepen the department’s programs, and seek grants to support them. He was a driving force behind the Musante Beach Recreation Area, and was a master at collaborating with other city departments to get things done.
“As a department head he was really well-respected, and a go-to guy,” said Moggio. “If you needed to get things done, he would never say no — he was always the one who would say, ‘How can we make this happen.’ ”
Though the Recreation Department did not, for example, maintain athletic fields, he would reach out to the Department of Public Works to see about making sure they were cared for properly. Fields off Burts Pit Road were named for Ellerbrook five years ago.
Moggio said his move to head Look Park was in some ways a natural next step because the park and the Recreation Department collaborated on so many projects. In doing so he came to love Look Park, she said.
But even as he worked at Look Park, she said, he had an influence on his former workplace — and Moggio said she never hesitated to call him to ask him for advice.
“He still pretty much acted like he was my boss when he was at Look Park, and I told him that,” she said with affection.
Ellerbrook became ill with colon cancer about 10 years ago, and seemed to have recovered after treatment, according to Goggins, but then it returned about five years ago.
“He was one tough, tough guy and he did not give into it easily,” said Goggins.
Kept a hand in
After Ellerbrook retired last December, he was a frequent visitor — and worker — at the park he loved so much.
He would come to pull weeds, mow the lawn, and paint a covered bridge, according to Shawn Porter, who was named to succeed Ellerbrook last April.
“We wanted to keep him involved,” said Porter, so staff not infrequently had lunch with him, including last Friday.
Porter said he, and staffers Maggie Taylor, Jill Larkin, and Dan Taylor had lunch with Ellerbrook, talking about the park, their work, their families, and their lives.
“It was nothing special, nothing gloomy, just regular light conversation,” said Porter.
He said Ellerbrook had legions of fans among those who had worked for him and with him. “Ray was definitely a mentor, friend, father figure. He was a pretty dynamic guy,” said Porter. “He kept everybody laughing. He kept the office moving.”
Porter said Ellerbrook was so beloved among members of the New England Park Association that many of them gathered in Northampton on Wednesday, the day he died, to plant a tree in his honor. Ellerbrook had been a member of the association since 1975 and was its treasurer from 1988 until last June.
On the front lawn of the imposing house at 300 North Main St. in Florence that is the park’s headquarters, they planted a fern leaf beech tree dedicated to him. Porter said it was fitting that the tree is planted on that lawn, which everyone considered Ellerbrook’s lawn and that he cared for even after he retired.
Goggins, who was at the tree dedication Wednesday, said it was an amazing testament to Ellerbrook that so many turned out with so little notice.
He said about 200 people came, knowing that Ellerbrook was in failing health but hoping that he would be on hand. But Ellerbrook was too ill to leave his home Wednesday, though some of his family members attended.
“It was a very fitting remembrance,” said Goggins. “And it all came together in less than 24 hours. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Calling hours for Ray Ellerbrook will be Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. at Czelusniak Funeral Home, 173 North St. A celebration of Ellerbrook’s life will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at the Ray Ellerbrook Athletic Fields at 48 Burts Pit Road.